by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Almost halfway through Helen Keller’s The Story of my Life, which first appeared in installments in Ladies’ Home Journal throughout 1902, is a chapter recalling what Keller labels “the one cloud in my childhood’s bright sky.” Chapter 14 tells the tale of the author’s first adventure in writing–her composition at the age of eleven of a short story entitled “The Frost King.” In doing so, it also tells the tale of her first encounter with public attacks on her authorship, accusations of plagiarism, and the loss of a friend and mentor.
In the autumn of 1890, Helen Keller wrote a short story entitled “The Frost King” and sent it to Mr. Michael Anagnos for his birthday. Anagnos was the director of the Perkins School for the Blind who had befriended the Keller family and arranged for Anne Sullivan to become Helen Keller’s teacher. Keller writes frequently of how attached she felt to Anagnos and in Chapter 14 details how delighted he was to receive the story. Impressed by the young Keller’s writing, Anagnos arranged to have it published.
However, it was soon discovered that Helen Keller had not written an original story but had rewritten “The Frost Fairies” by Margaret T. Canby. According to Keller’s recollection, she had forgotten a caregiver named Sophia C. Hopkins had read her this story two years earlier and thought she was simply creating a new tale on her own. In Chapter 14, Keller denies conscious knowledge of having heard the original story and repudiates all charges of plagiarism and fraud. In short, she claims she simply forgot having ever been introduced to the original version and asserts she never spoke to Anne Sullivan about reading it with Hopkins.
Keller explains the confusion of the ill-fated composition of “The Frost King” and defends everyone involved, even those who took part in the school tribunal that found her not guilty. (A tribunal for an eleven-year-old author!) As well, she recounts the support many showed her throughout the matter as well as the pain this incident caused in the end. She writes, “In my trouble I received many messages of love and sympathy. All the friends I loved best, except one, have remained my own to the present time.” After the incident, Anagnos never treated Keller the same. This break is one of the saddest moments of the first half of the memoir.
While Chapter 14 provides an interesting insight into the literary, educational, and disability institutions of the time, it also provides one of Keller’s prolonged discussions of her writing practices and attitudes. (Elsewhere, I would like to consider more how ableist assumptions affected this matter, but for now, I am focused on Keller’s concern with the act of writing.)
Keller begins the chapter by explaining, “In order to make the matter clear, I must set forth the facts connected with this episode, which justice to my teacher and to myself compels me to write.” She has no choice but to write about the matter for her sake, the sake of Anne Sullivan, and, perhaps, the sake of broader questions of authorship–disabled and otherwise–because the painful event altered her relationship with composition. She describes her first attempts at writing “The Frost King” with a sense of delight:
My thoughts flowed easily; I felt a sense of joy in composition. Words and images came tripping to my finger ends, and as I thought out sentence after sentence, I wrote them on my braille slate.
In the beginning, writing came easily to her, ideas almost overflowing her ability to compose them into the story. She took pleasure in such inspiration. Even if, in retrospect, she was never quite certain which thoughts originated with her and which came from other thinkers, it seemed normal to her because so much of her perception came through “the medium of others’ eyes and ears.” Her lived embodied experience and her compositional practices aligned with one another.
After the incident, though, Keller’s perspective, if not her process, changed considerably because she began to recognize how interlaced were her own thoughts and the thoughts of others and how such interconnected, heteronomous relations challenge perceptions of authorship as a solitary act.
Those early compositions were mental gymnastics. I was learning, as all young and inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas into words. Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it.
The young writer, Keller remarks, copies much of what she encounters and only with a good deal of practice is able to organize and deploy “the legion of words” racing through her mind from every direction. To learn to write is to learn to imitate and then to articulate–to organize into sections or segments. Good writing is good organizing.
At the time of writing The Story of My Life, Keller asserts, she had not quite learned that technique completely. Thus, her writing, in her judgment, still more resembled “the crazy patchwork” of her first attempts at sewing. For all the recognized poetry of her prose, she was inarticulate.
Likewise my compositions are made up of crude notions of my own, inlaid with the brighter thoughts and riper opinions of the authors I have read. It seems to me that the great difficulty of writing is to make the language of the educated mind express our confused ideas, half feelings, half thoughts, when we are little more than bundles of instinctive tendencies. Trying to write is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern in mind which we wish to work out in words; but the words will not fit the spaces, or, if they do, they will not match the design. But we keep on trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to acknowledge defeat.
But what if one’s lived experience and life writing never match the autonomous conception of “authorship”? What if interdependent embodied experience is one’s life experience? And what if the relation between one’s “bundles of instinctive tendencies” and perceiving the world through “others’ eyes and ears” is never quite clear? Here, then, Chapter 14 of Helen Keller’s memoir provides not only a retelling of one of the most painful episodes of her young life but also a lesson on reading the composition of The Story of My Life and of disability memoir in general. Trying to read may well involve the process of rereading that uncertain relation between instinct and relation, between the halves of ideas, feelings, and thoughts impressed and expressed.